Hoffmann: James was NOT the biological brother of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Steven Carr has drawn our attention to Dr R. Joseph Hoffmann’s argument that Paul’s reference in Galatians 1:19 to “James, the brother of the Lord”, was clearly not meant to be understood by Paul as an indicator that James was the biological brother of Jesus. He wrote in The Jesus Tomb Debacle: RIP:

The James who is head of the church in Jerusalem is not a biological brother of Jesus. Later but inconsistent gospel references to James are muddled reminiscences based on the more prominent James of the Pauline tradition.

The Jesus Process (c) member and scholar Stephanie Fisher has just come out and publicly affirmed the solid scholarly foundation on which Dr Hoffmann’s conclusion that James was NOT the biological brother of Jesus are based:

Joe’s conclusions are based on evidence and argument

I would have been inclined to have suspected Hoffmann has since come to regret his earlier post but we are assured by his fellow member of  The Jesus Process (c)  that there is nothing about Hoffmann’s case that is not based on “evidence and argument” — presumably meaning “valid” argument.

Dr Hoffmann also informs us that his conclusions have the support of other New Testament scholars. He does not name these other scholars, presumably because they are so numerous and well-known among his intended scholarly readership that singling any names would have been superfluous. He writes:

(a) The death of James is not recorded in the New Testament. For that we rely on a late 1st century work by the historian Josephus in his Antiquities (20.9). It is known by scholars, however, that Christian references in Josephus’s work are pious additions. In the case of the Jamesian reference, the hand of the Christian editor is especially badly disguised by the addition of “who is called Christ” following the use of the name “Jesus” in discussing the trial of a certain James. It is an echo of the same device used in the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3), sometimes cited as a proof of the existence of Jesus but today normally regarded as a Christian forgery. If we purge the Christian interpolation, it is clear that the James mentioned by Josephus, who is delivered to stoning, is the brother of a significant Jewish leader and contender for the priesthood, Jesus bar Damneus, whose name appears in the same passage. In Antiquities 20.9.4, a Jesus bar Gamaliel succeeds Jesus the son of Damneus in the high priesthood. Josephus does not mention – at all – the James known from New Testament sources. The James sentenced to stoning is a completely different man. In his Jewish Wars, Josephus sees the death of Ananus – not James – as a precipitating event leading to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Christian interpolator has (bunglingly) inserted the relationship into a passage where he located the name of the wrong Jesus. It is therefore also impossible, outside Christian legend, to say anything of historical consequence about the later history of the James known to us from Paul’s letters.

Again, Hoffmann points to the support his argument has among “many scholars”:

(b) Complication: Paul’s language. The basis for the suggestion that James is the brother of Jesus depends on early references in Paul, especially Galatians 1.19. There is no doubt that James was regarded by Paul as a significant player in the Jerusalem community, together with Peter and John (Galatians 2.9, repeated in the legendary primacy-catalogue of Mark 9.2ff.). But his use of the word adelphos, as many scholars recognize, refers to James as a member of the brotherhood, as in Galatians 2.4; 3.15; 4.12, or as when he speaks of “false brothers” in Gal 2.4,5. James, according to Luke, uses the same language in calling Paul “brother,” (Acts 21.20) and the community the “brotherhood” (20.17).

More honorifics: after my recent series on Matthew Novenson’s book arguing that Paul used the word “Christ” as an honorific for Jesus, it is interesting to see Hoffmann declare that Paul uses “brother” as an honorific to identify James. I also highlight in bold type Hoffmann’s conclusion that we are assured is “based on evidence and [valid] argument”:

The early Christians were renowned for their use of familial terms to describe their fellowship, a fact which led to their rituals being castigated as incestuous by pagan onlookers. In short, the use of the term “brother” to refer to James is honorific (religious) rather than genetic. Paul nowhere refers to other “Jameses” – no biological brother, no “James the Just” or “the righteous” or “the younger.” Those characters are created by necessity and fleshed out in the future, by gospel writers, and perhaps echo late first and early second century confusion over misremembered details of the historical period that Paul represents, more or less contemporaneously. In the light of Paul’s complete disregard for the “historical” Jesus, moreover, it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and “the Lord.”

I see Dr Hoffmann appears to agree with Dr Paula Fredriksen that Mark’s choice of names for the brothers of Jesus is clearly an artificial foil.

(c) Finally, the James, Joseph, and Judas of the gospels, if not merely stock figures invented by Mark and dis-invented by Luke, play no role in the ministry of Jesus, while the unrelated son of Zebedee does. To turn Mark’s James into the head of the Jerusalem community after the death of Jesus, one would have to imagine that the James of the family who rejects Jesus (Mark 3.31) and is rejected in turn, repents of his action and joins the apostles, in Jerusalem, at some point following the death of Jesus, and rises to a position of prominence. While this scenario is not impossible, parsimony dictates that it is not likely. Mark’s theology implies that the scenario in chapter six is a fictional one designed to subordinate ephemeral family relations to the needs the wider community – the “true brotherhood” of believers.

Compare Paula Fredriksen’s:

It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)

So it looks like Hoffmann and Fredriksen are of one mind here. Earlier Stephanie Fisher suspected I was misrepresenting Fredriksen’s words but it now looks like she has happily seen that the tenor I claimed for them is indeed “based on evidence and [valid] argument”. It’s inspiring to see scholars and students modifying their views over time with further reflection.

So Dr Hoffmann concluded, based on evidence and [valid] argument, and with appeals to other scholars for support along the way:

The James who is head of the church in Jerusalem is not a biological brother of Jesus. Later but inconsistent gospel references to James are muddled reminiscences based on the more prominent James of the Pauline tradition.

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37 thoughts on “Hoffmann: James was NOT the biological brother of Jesus”

    But his use of the word adelphos, as many scholars recognize…

    Of course, Hoffman might have changed his mind since then, but that won’t change the evidence that his article was based on.

    In any case, even if Hoffman has changed his mind since writing his article, the ‘many scholars’ that Hoffman refers to won’t all have changed their minds as well.

  2. If you study the ancient texts, those outside the gospels of christian mythology, you´ll find that James was the Christ who was persecuted and attacked by Paul. The last attack Paul attempted on James was carried out on top of the temple steps. The attack ended when James was hit by a branding iron and fell down the steps and landed on the ground, seemingly dead. His lifeless (comatose) body was carried through the streets of Jerusalem and to everyone who saw this James appeared to be dead. When he, days later, awoke from his coma it seemed like a miracle and some believed that the archangel Michael had resurrected the pious James from the dead, others believed that Michael had taken over James and used it as his vessel when walking on earth. James second death took place in the beginning of the 60´s modern time when he was accused of heresy by the jewish high priest. This accusation later on added to the general confusion in the gospels of pagan christian mythology when the writers tried to merge the story of the Christ, James the Just, with the story of Jesus/Joshua, the samaritan prophet. The samaritan prophet gave birth to the pagan christian saga of Jesus/Joshua as the Christ executed by Pilate. Most likely the samaritan prophet was beheaded on mount Gerizim with many of his followers, not crucified in Jerusalem as pagan christian mythology states. If you want the historical Jesus, the samaritan prophet is your man. If you want the historical Christ, then James is your man.

      1. The beginning of this account appears to be loosely based on the Rufinus translation of the PseudoClementine Recognitions. However it takes off from there without any sources I can recognize..
        Could Mr Blackman be prevailed upon to cite his references?

    Later but inconsistent gospel references to James….

    So the Gospel of Mark was written after Galatians?

    I always thought that Crossley, of the Jesus Process, placed Mark in the early 40’s…

    Perhaps Maurice Casey can confirm for us when the author of Mark wrote that James was the brother of Jesus.

  4. I also found this comment from Hoffmann interesting, in light of the recent discussion of Galatians 4:4:

    “It is sometimes pointed out that Paul makes reference (Galatians 4.4) to Jesus having ‘been born of a woman, under the law,’ but it is widely believed that these words are an insertion into the text of Galatians: Marcion, our earliest witness, does not know them, and as Hilgenfeld once noted, if his opponent, Tertullian, could have quoted them against Marcion, a docetist thinker, to prove the essential humanity of Jesus, he would have.”

    Hoffmann argued recently that Gal 4:4 betrays Paul’s awareness of Jewish allegations that Jesus’ conception was something less than divine or even legitimate. It seems, though, if he still stands by this observation, Gal 4:4, even if Hoffmann’s observation is accepted, tells us nothing about what PAUL was aware of regarding the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.

  5. Perhaps my comment was not clear? I said that Joe’s post was an amusing response to the James Tabor Tomb Debacle ie James’ sensational claims and made up evidence. Joe’s arguments and evidence for James are not in this blog post written in 2008 which is irony.

    1. Your comment continues to be unclear.

      But Hoffman wrote very clearly. ‘In the light of Paul’s complete disregard for the “historical” Jesus, moreover, it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and “the Lord.”’

      1. I would love to know the thought process that took him from dismissing Paul’s statement about James as the Lord’s biological brother to his current position. On the same subject, I’d like to know whether those shadowy “many scholars” followed him when he flipped polarities.

        1. Apologies for drawing attention again to: irony. Also critical thinkers like Joseph Hoffmann and the rest of us, do not ‘flip’ or hold convictions. Our ideas evolve as we reach conclusions with argument and evidence, as I think you know.)

          1. So you’re going to get hung up on semantics? OK. Let’s try it again.

            People evolve. That’s good. People change their minds. That’s good, too.

            I would still like to know what new evidence or new appraisal of old evidence or new logic caused him to evolve and to change his mind.

            1. Honest scholarship always evolves with new evidence and developed arguments, as well as self-critical examination and discussion. More and more scholars change their minds about the hypothetical ‘document’ called “Q” for example (just a shame the ones profiting with “Q” based publications, appear more committed to their theory generally, even if they fiddle or adjust the content of the ‘document’). What is so intriguing is why you are so fascinated by Joseph Hoffmann.

              1. I’m fascinated by a lot of things. And as I said, it’s nice to see people change their minds as they reflect on matters. One hopes it means that they don’t proceed from foregone conclusions, looking only for evidence that fits their preconceptions. Whatever changed Hoffmann’s mind could also change mine. You never know.

                I somewhat agree with you on Q — that is, I still find it pretty good as a provisional theory; however, I can’t buy the overblown claims for Q, especially the reconstruction of a “Q Community” that precedes all other sources and is non-apocalyptic, with Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild — kind of like John Dominic Crossan with a beard — at the center of it all. And I agree with Goodacre that the more you study the matter the less confidence you have in the “standard” solution.

                BTW, I was also fascinated with G. A. Wells and the way he changed his mind. I think I understand why he did, although I don’t agree with him.

              2. Yes I’m aware of your changing thoughts about Q – I appreciate that. I think it’s well and truly on the way out now and Goulder has been foundational for his contribution and Goodacre has subsequently popularised it. Far more non Q New Testament scholars in the world are expressing doubts about and opposition to thorough the Q theory and the strange and unrealistic ideas formed on the assumption of its existence – such as the so called Q community. Yes, a reflection of Dom at the centre just what we were taught over a century ago to be wary of (not Dom specifically although if he’d known he’d probably have said that too….) There is also vigorous criticism of the Westar Jesus seminar in published work and in seminar sessions at conferences.

                I think you’ve still misunderstood Joe on James. Paul and Acts and Mark represent James differently for different reasons. If you have time to re read Joe’s essay in the Jesus Process, including the important footnotes, it’s pretty much all there as well as scattered throughout other work.

                We’re all fascinated by G.A Wells. He’s honest. I don’t agree with him either. In fact none of my close working colleagues do. But we certainly like him and respect his integrity.

              3. By the way I should have said it was George Tyrell who is responsible for the ‘gazing down the well’ metaphor: “The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” (Christianity at the Crossroads, p 49) and Schweitzer illustrated this with a vengeance. Crossan is the worst offender of it. Also that ‘thorough’ is a typo. If Tyrell or Schweitzer had foreseen Dom’s autobiographical Jesus, they probably would have said ‘be wary of him gazing down the well’…

              4. Oh no! – clarification – the ‘seminars’ at conferences in which vigorous criticism of Westar, and Crossan and others are held, are the ‘Jesus seminars’, one of many seminars held at the British NT conference, the International Society of Biblical Literature Conference held in Europe and Antipodes (even reaching ‘Awklund’ Aotearoa several years ago), and the European Association of Biblical Studies Conference held in Europe (the EABS will hopefully eventually hold a conference in the Antipodes one year, it will be cheaper for me – it’s a more recent conference addition). These seminars are not to be confused with the Westar Jesus Seminar of Bob Funk (RIP – a kind scholar and gentleman, like Crossan, both of whom were regrettably mistaken…)

              5. I think Steph is saying there was a revolution in the last 2 years, and all these anonymous ‘many scholars’ of Hoffman’sm simultaneously changed their minds , and stopped regarding Galatians 4:4 as an interpolation, and stopped regarding the reference to James in Josephus as a Christian corruption.

                And this was all done because of the new ‘evidence’ and ‘arguments’ ,which Steph has not given in a single one of her many postings in this thread….. (Nor has Steph named any of these ‘many scholars’ of Hoffman’s 2009 post )

                You are simply not to think that Hoffman wrote one thing because he wanted to put down Tabor, and then wrote the very opposite because he wanted to put down mythicists.

        2. Tim, I have no question but that our top NT Studies scholars read Paul in his intent. Paul is referring to two James. James one of the key disciples, “James and Cephus and John, who were reputed to be pillars”, who soon after the crucifixion returned to Jerusalem to again take up the message of Jesus, to begin the Jesus Movement. The other, “James the brother of the Lord”, not a disciple, but who soon after the Movement began, became its leader.
          This seems to bear out the point of my Doherty quote.

  6. So, Josephus tells us something reliable about James, a brother of a Jesus bar Damneus. Does he tell us anything reliable about a brother of Jesus of Nazareth?

    He tells us of sixteen other fellows named Jesus, all in or not too far away from the period in question, some of whom did not amount to a hill of beans. Yet we are *not* to expect that he, or Philo, would write a blessed thing about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a real man who delivered a New Covenant with God – which is the centerpiece of a new Earthly Christian philiosophy – when he spoke to a (yet another) large crowd of people at The Mount?

    Why do I continue to get the feeling that the historical silence about JC is dismissed way, way too blithely?

    Has anyone compiled a list of exactly what minutiae these historians did feel significant enough to mention? Do we know more about, say, the activities of minor tradesmen or vendors, more about the exploits of minor soldiers or landowners than we know about someone who surely spoke to admiring crowds on multiple occasions? And if we do, does this not make the argument from silence more problematic than apologists would like us to believe?

  7. Hoffmann in 2008 and again 2009 against Tabor:

    The earliest Christian literature, that written by Paul, knows the names of none of Jesus’ family members. It is sometimes pointed out that Paul makes reference (Galatians 4.4) to Jesus having “been born of a woman, under the law,” but it is widely believed that these words are an insertion into the text of Galatians: Marcion, our earliest witness, does not know them, and as Hilgenfeld once noted, if his opponent, Tertullian, could have quoted them against Marcion, a docetist thinker, to prove the essential humanity of Jesus, he would have. . . . . Paul’s use of the term “brother” is not dispositive since he is not using it in reference to a biological relationship.

    Hoffmann in 2012 against mythicists:

    Mythicists have special antipathy for Galatians 4.4: ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναῖκος, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον, since there is no serious suggestion that it is interpolated or “unoriginal” to the letter.

    I was in the process of Hoffmann’s claim to have wide scholarly support for each of his contradictory claims when Steven Carr posted on the very same point. Presumably, then, all these scholars with whom Hoffmann was in agreement really have all changed their minds since 2009.

    How can anyone take seriously the writings from such a one as this when it is clear he simply makes up scholarly support or causes it to vanish — along with all his earlier arguments — according to the convenience of the moment?

    Isn’t this the same thing we saw with Bart Ehrman — turning around and writing the direct opposite of what he wrote only a few years ago simply to attack mythicism? Compare:


    1. I believe Hoffman’s original article against Tabor was on Butterflies and Wheels in 2007, and he mistyped the date of its appearance in the 2009 article.


      At that time, of course, ‘many scholars’ disputed the meaning of adelphos as ‘sibling.

      I quote Hoffmann’s summary of what ‘many scholars’ at that time believed ‘ But his use of the word adelphos, as many scholars recognize, refers to James as a member of the brotherhood….’

      It is amazing that what ‘many scholars’ of 2007 believed is now a ludicrous fringe position, only believed by people who hate Christianity, and who will be torn to pieces in Casey’s new book as the amateurs they are.

  8. Hoffman claimed that there ‘was no serious suggestion’ that it was an interpolation and simply hid from his readers that *he himself* wrote an article claiming that Galatians 4:4 was an interpolation, and that ‘many scholars’ agreed with him on this , and that it was ‘widely believed’.

    Surely Hoffman could have mentioned that there had been such a volte-face in New Testament scholarship that his opinions of 3 years ago were then scholarly consensus , but his then views were now no longer to be taken seriously.

    Wouldn’t that have been honest?

    I’m sure Steph will be along to claim that if you believed in Galatians 4:4 being an interpolation in 2009, you were basing it on a Hoffman-like marshalling of evidence and arguments, but if you even hint in 2012 at the possibility of Galatians 4:4 being an interpolation (which few mythicists do), you will be on Casey’s hit list for his new book, as you are obviously an amateur, a blogger, and whatever else Steph and Casey are calling people nowadays.

    One thing is certain. Steph will not tell us any ‘new’ evidence and arguments that are available to Hoffman in 2012, but were *not* available to Hoffman in 2009.

    1. Steven,
      You have uncovered some potentially embarrassing hypocrisy with the Jesus Process people. And I like all your insights and comments pretty nearly, it’s just that I wince sometimes when you do it. It must be your nature to react in like manner—a little acerbically sometimes and without an avenue for the opponent to change their mind honorably. Oh well, I just want to keep thinking of this site as well above the lowest common denominator.

  9. I am certain that our top scholars of NT Studies read Paul’s Galatians references to James in his obviious intention of naming two different Jameses:
    James, one of the three key disciples: “James and Cephus and John, who were reputed to be pillers” (Gal. 2:9). The three who returned to Jerusalem soon after the crucifixion pruposing to again take up the teaching of Jesus, to begin the Jerusalem Jesus Movement. (Our sole Scriptural source of apostolic witness to Jesus as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount).
    The other “James the brother of the Lord”, who was not a disciple. He joined the Jesus Movement, becoming its leader by the time of Paul’s first visit: “after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephus. But I saw none of the other disciples escept (I saw) James the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:18). My () as if necessary.

      1. Neii, The discussion here is the first I am aware of which argues that Paul names only one James and this James is not the brother of Jesus. I find no basis for questioning my above literal reading.
        I just happened to come upon a comment by Merrill Miller, “Beginning From Jreusalem” which bears out my comment as the common reading. (I find his understanding to be particularly consistent with my reconstruction of Jesus traditiions.) The comment is in Note 12 in an unrelated context:
        “There is no indication that the death of James, the brother of Jesus, is for the ssame reason as the death of James , the brother of John – – “.

      2. Neil, This is the first argument I am aware of that questions my above literal reading Paul’s intent.
        I just happened upon a comment by Mirrill Miler in his “Beginning From Jerusalem” Note 12., in an unrelated context, which seems to confirm my reading as common reading: “There is no indication that the death of James, the brother of Jesus, is for the same reason as the death of James, the brother of John – -“.

    1. I was under the impression that Paul does not use the word ‘disciple[s]” nor in any sense to state that there existed a group of persons who were followers/acolytes/witnesses to a living, not visionary or revealed, JC and that to imply that he does is to erroneously read the gospels backwards into his text.
      ‘Pillars’ aint ‘disciples’.
      Perhaps our top scholars do make that assumption but to the extent that they do they are misinterpreting, perhaps wilfully?

  10. My impression is that the text of much of the Bible – particularly here – is deliberately ambiguous. The matter of which early “leaders” or “pillars” were authoritative, which were the true disciples, which were the trueschools of thought and so forth, was of course extremely important, but was much contended. By later contending branches of Christianity. And since there were many conflicting contentions about which were best – finally our core text was deliberately left rather ambiguous. In order to avoid siding with any one theological school or church, over another.

    Likely one of the main bones of contention was whether the leadership of Christianity should be a hereditary monarchy: which is why the matter of the “brother of Jesus” becomes important. Or whether it should be instead, a more elective leadership. Where you could become “head” of the Church without being biologically related to Jesus; or even being biologically Jewish. Since these matters were likely much disputed, the biblical text we have hoped to avoid being involved in endless arguments. By being deliberately equivocal on this question, among so many others.

    Attempts therefore to “finally resolve” the Bible’s meaning here therefore, are likely fated. Though this very ambiguity at least allows us to say that … 1) the Bible does not make any absolutely obvious and firm determination on this key matter: the matter of which early spokesmen for Jesus were most authoritative was not firmly resolved even in the Bible itself. Though 2) if any thing, this ambiguity is resolved by portions of the text where we see Jesus “himself” telling us that his real family, were his elective disciples, and not his biological family( Mark 3.33 ff, Luke 8.19); by Jesus telling us that 3) we must even “hate” our real family to enter the kingdom (Luke 14.26). And 4) then Paul also insisting that you don’t have to be biologically Jewish to be considered a follower, an “heir” to God’s promises.

    The Bible is deliberately ambiguous (/”literary”; “poetic”) on many issues; here it waffles on the existence or importance of a biological brother of Jesus. But it anything, it seems that if anything the text eventually resolves itself, finally, against attaching much importance to any possible biological “brother” of Jesus. And by extension, any biological – or even historical – status for Jesus himself.

  11. Apparently pro historicity passages in Paul (e.g., “born of a woman; of the seed of david; James the brother of the lord”) may be post Pauline interpolations meant to combat Docetism (it seems kind of silly of Paul to point out Jesus was born of a woman unless there was a faction contending he wasn’t).

  12. Maybe this is old news, but the first-known original Greek copy of a heretical Christian writing describing Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James has been discovered by biblical scholars. The original manuscript was probably a teacher’s model used to help students learn to read and write. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171130133824.htm

    It starts out by saying: “James, my brother. For not without reason have I called you my brother, although you are not my brother materially.” http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/1ja.html

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